An about turn
Over the last three months we have been in correspondence with our local MP Mr John Glen over the issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This arose because the French President spoke out publicly against the increased use of the death penalty in Saudi and the barbaric way in which they are carried out. We also expressed concerns about human rights generally, the use of torture and the dreadful treatment of women.
Mr Glen replied and arranged for a Foreign Office minister to reply as well. The burden of their replies was that the government took the issue of human rights very seriously and raised the issue of human rights with the Saudis at every available opportunity. It began to unwind because it was revealed that the Foreign Office had removed the abolition of the death penalty as one of its objectives. This was only a matter of days following assurances to the contrary from one if its junior ministers in his letter to us. Earlier this month Sir Simon McDonald, head of the FCO, told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that:
economic prosperity was further up his list of priorities than human rights.
Following the news that a Saudi had been elected to the UN’s human rights council – an astonishing fact in itself – it was discovered shortly afterwards that our own government had facilitated this. The British government had used its influence to secure the position of someone, patently against human rights, onto the human rights council. This was a quid pro quo arrangement apparently but since no one was objecting to our application, why it should be necessary was never explained.
We noted that George Osborne had pleased and apparently surprised his Chinese hosts by not mentioning human rights on his recent visit there. China executes more than any other country in the world and has been arresting and detaining large numbers of people involved in human rights in a major crackdown. We are shortly to play host to the President of China, Xi-Jinping, who has expressed a wish that human rights are not mentioned during his visit. Despite their lamentable human rights record he will get the red carpet treatment nevertheless.
Then came the news that a Briton, Karl Andree, was to receive 360 lashes for alcohol offences for which he has already served a prison term. It might be thought that the Saudi administration would be sensitive to how this might play in the UK. With the UK government falling over themselves to sell them arms and the Kingdom in an increasingly rocky state financially because of low oil prices, to flog a British national in public is not exactly good PR.
The government responded by cancelling a £9.5m contract to train prison staff. Again, one might ask what on earth are we doing helping a regime which tortures its prisoners more or less as a matter of routine. And it has to be noted that this is not an arms contract so its effect is unlikely to be keenly felt. So it seems that where a Briton is involved the government is willing to react reportedly after a huge ministerial row. Otherwise, it is business as usual.
On the BBC’s Profile programme (18 October) it was concluded that the deal is that Saudi provides oil and security information in exchange for legitimacy and keeping quiet on human rights abuses.
The statement ‘the government will continue to work towards the complete abolition of the death penalty using all the tools at its disposal’ is unconvincing in the light of these actions.